In recent years, the prevailing image of the Sri Lankan diaspora in the media has been dominated by Tamil community activists’ human rights campaign, calling for investigations into the Sri Lankan government’s actions in 2009 during the last phases of the 26 year war with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
However, with estimates of hundreds of thousands of people of Sri Lankan heritage living in the UK, and a worldwide diaspora population in the millions, it is clear that, while this is evidently the most visible and vocal movement, there are many more opinions, positions and stories to tell.
The diaspora is diverse, and the complexities of the history and root causes of the conflict are often lost in media reporting. The plethora of experiences in diaspora communities, within and between ethnic groups, is also often unexplored. Diaspora individuals frequently have complex relationships with the land of their heritage, shaped by years of conflict both in Sri Lanka and within the diaspora itself. Viewpoints and political stances differ within communities, families and generations, not just between them.
Since 2008, International Alert has been working with diaspora communities from across all of Sri Lanka’s main ethnicities – Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim – to support peacebuilding and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Through our country office in Colombo, we work with political and civil society in Sri Lanka, and from London, with diaspora associations and communities, opening space for dialogue and peace-supporting collaboration between the two.
The diaspora communities we have encountered span a wide spectrum of engagement with Sri Lanka – from focused political lobbying and principled boycotts to those devoted to working across communities and on the ground.
In spite of these polar opposite approaches, all these individuals and groups do have something in common. They are trying to navigate the complex interaction between personal and communal histories and experiences, political realities and a desire to improve the lives and prospects of those living on the island.
With this in mind, Alert commissioned filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam to create a series of portraits of diaspora individuals, focused on their relationship with Sri Lanka and the ways in which their identities and activism are influenced by their – and their family’s – experiences during the many years of conflict. These Diaspora Diaries are intended to stimulate productive dialogue within and between Sri Lankan diaspora communities on the nature of diaspora identity, and on connections and interactions with Sri Lanka.
Kannan approached a wide range of individuals to participate in the series, but was often disappointed by rejection. For many of those from the Tamil community who take a principled stance, any involvement in a reconciliation-focused programme was felt to undermine their activism. The idea of “reconciliation” itself was seen as submitting to someone else’s agenda. On the other side of the spectrum, many of those from the Sinhala community who take a principled stance feel that there is nothing to discuss. The end of the war signifies the end of the problem; the violence is over, there is peace: what is left to talk about? Although this position is not often visible to a casual observer, it is expressed in private and can be witnessed in comments in online media, where the competing viewpoints often clash loudly, aggressively and abusively.
Others were concerned about how they might be perceived by their friends, families and communities. Divisions between, and within, the different ethnic communities on the issue of Sri Lanka remain deep and anyone who chooses to raise their profile on the subject can be exposing themselves, and their families, to criticism.
But, some individuals did feel that there was value to discussing their involvement. They wanted to explore what it meant to be a part of the diaspora, and to have the opportunity to share their stories. The portraits which were produced show that the concept of reconciliation is difficult to pin down. It means different things to different people, and can be moulded and shaped in accordance with the needs of their communities.
The five individuals who participated are all already actively engaged on Sri Lankan issues: Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, a former Olympian who is now an education specialist working with communities at risk in the North of Sri Lanka; Paul Sathianesan, who arrived in the UK in the mid-eighties as a refugee and is now serving as a Councillor in the London Borough of Newham; Nikini Jayatunga, member of Voices for Reconciliation, a cross-ethnic group facilitating community dialogue in the UK; Akneeswaran Jeganathapillai, a second generation doctor, working in a cross-community group, ARC Health, to support healthcare in Sri Lanka; and Amjad Mohamed Saleem, a member of the Sri Lankan Muslim community in the UK, who worked in Sri Lanka for Muslim Aid in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which also devastated his family.
Each of their stories builds a piece of the picture of the Sri Lankan diaspora. Rather than a monolithic entity, the diaspora is characterised by its multitude of voices, its diversity of experiences – as well as its continuing connection with the land of heritage. Alert believes its strength resides in both the diversity and the common interest in the wellbeing of the peoples of the island. There is a desire to make a difference, and diaspora individuals – with their unique connection to their country of origin – do have the potential to be agents of peace. The question for them remains: how to fulfil this role given the social and political complexity?